Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A gruesome drama

186 DOLLARS TO FREEDOM (2012)

Produced By: Four Fish Films and others
Director: Camilo Vila
Starring: John Robinson, Michael DeLorenzo, Alex Meraz, Johnny Lewis, and others
Pros: Good story, strong acting
Cons: Peters out in the end, slow
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

Far away from the usual tales of coming-of-age or giant robots that are my staple, here was one movie that packed in a huge dollop of suspense and drama, ending most unfortunately as a dud. 186 Dollars of Freedom, supposedly based on a true story, explores the story of an American trapped in the corrupt and brutal Peruvian 'justice' system. Our main character, in turn, oscillated between naive white American and resourceful, street-smart man.

True or not, the story is indeed good, and is reminiscent of other top prison movies. And despite the taciturn nature of the characters (intended or otherwise), the acting was quite good. However, like most movies, the story wanes towards the end, with a series of coincidences working in favor of the protagonist, leaving much to be desired. Moreover, the ending and the rest of the story had very little in common, so it could've ended much sooner and yet stretched out far too long. A movie that could've been so much better, but just imploded. (OTFS)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Of Our Times

The Road to Serfdom
By Friedrich Hayek

The 'art' of predicting the future has certainly grown in popularity of late. You now have experts on virtually everything, who are more than willing to tell you what to do (whether you asked for it or not). Of course, most of these self-declared experts would not know reality if it hit them in the face. In such a world that we live in, to be able to go back in time and read the predictions of what a socialist England would be, and to be able to relate it to the spread of socialism in the rest of the world and its horrid effects to this day, is quite a surprise. Of course, when the author is as authoritative as Dr. Hayek, and when his arguments justly flow from history rather than rhetoric, you start to understand why.

The Road to Serfdom is a book about socialism, set around World War II, but its message remains relevant for the whole world to this day. Its explanation of why socialism is still so attractive despite its massive failures, and how it has an uncanny resemblance to Nazism, is perhaps the best I have read so far. Certainly, an excellent reading for those interested in the humanities. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

On the #SurgicalStrikes

After the Uri terrorist attacks that killed 19 Indian soldiers, there was an odd sense of familiarity. After all, India had seen 26/11, the worst terrorist attack on Indian soil, and had moved on (somehow). And Uri is in Kashmir - on the periphery, a trouble place that is best known for such things, and little else. And yet, there was this hope - nay, desire, that this time, it would be different. That this time our martyrs would not have made the ultimate sacrifice in vain. Why? Because this time, unlike before, we had hoped that India had finally elected a PM who cared about the country.

And initially, it seemed like all the pundits had been right, and we had been wrong - we had another PM who was all talk. Worse, while the previous Congress administration had a clear strategy of not playing cricket with Pakistan, this one seemed to gyrate from one position to another. And then came the #SurgicalStrikes, a term that has permanently gone into the lexicon of every Indian. Just listening to the substance of Mayawati's speech today says a lot about how much it has shocked PM Modi's opponents who tried to ridicule him, and how it has fired the BJP's base.

Who deserves the credit for the retaliation and change in India's posture vis-a-vis Pakistan? Of course, first and foremost, our armed forces that meticulously planned and executed the operation, in conjunction form some excellent intelligence from both the IB/RAW and ISRO. The civilian bureaucracy in the MEA as well as the Minister for EA and her team deserve credit for creating all the right atmospherics to prepare the world - as evidenced by the fact that, for once, it is Pakistan which is being told to exercise restraint, and its cries on Kashmir have been ignored in every country that counts.

And finally, the credit goes to PM Modi and the Defense Minister, for taking the call to change a policy of appeasing Pakistan that has been in place for decades. Make no mistake - Modi is the only politician today who would have had the courage and conviction to make the final decision and be sure that he could handle it politically. The way the whole affair was managed, militarily, domestically, and internationally, makes for textbook reading of how statesmen should be. Indeed, if Indira Gandhi was Goddess Durga for partitioning Pakistan in the midst of the Cold War, Modi is nothing less than Lord Ram in the nuclear age.

And for this courage and conviction, and above all, for his understanding of the Indian people, Modi and his party deserve all the political gains that accrue. If politicians don't get re-elected for their good work, why would they do any good work (unless they believe they have a birthright on the institutions of this country, of course)? The opposition today is very, very afraid, for they know now that Modi is not an ordinary politician. His popularity today is sky-high, and people trust him. And that is something very few others can claim.

Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

War and Peace Lecture: Power Through Strength

In strategic circles, there is often a dilemma as to how a country can becomes powerful. On one side, there are those who believe that to be powerful, it is necessary to openly demonstrate strength, almost always at those who are weaker, or at least perceived to be so. This doctrine may be called the 'strength through power' doctrine, that a country is powerful if can demonstrate its strength, often dramatically. On the other side is the 'power through strength' doctrine, one that believes that in order to be powerful, it is necessary to develop internal strength that does not have to be demonstrated outwardly. Where does the truth lie, if it exists?

Consider what power and strength are. Power is the ability to change something to one's liking, whole strength is an inward trait - the power to change one self, or a country. Can the two exist separate from each other? Can a person, or a country, that is not strong internally, influence others, or even conquer them as a demonstration of power? Or conversely, if a country is strong internally, can it necessarily project power externally?

But does it need to?

The Need
That a country needs to be strong internally is hard to question - without internal cohesion, a country is hardly anything more than a piece of geography. Iraq today, for example, is so divided along several lines - Shia, Sunni, Kurds, ISIS, the 'legitimate' government - that is barely exists as a country in its entire territory. But does a country that is strong need to project power? America, the world's superpower, projects its power (with varying degrees of success) to every corner of the globe, and internally, despite a lot of problems, it is very strong. But Switzerland, another country that is very strong, has been known historically to avoid any and all involvement in power projection on what has historically been a warring continent.

And yet, there is a different between the two, a difference that matters: utility to the world. For, it is a fact that the world is not a 'nice' or peaceful place, it is a place where hard power works. And that is not because people are necessarily 'bad' - rather, it is because they are realistic in life, because they have to lead a real life far detached from the one presented to them by romanticists. And in real life, resources are finite, and any group that can capture more resources will rise. That is the essence of 'realpolitik'. Therefore, in the world, a country's need to project power or not essentially comes from its utility.

Consider Switzerland itself, a land-locked country that is a geographical fortress, one that would be exceedingly hard (but not impossible) to dominate, and yet would provide very little resources to the conqueror. Such a country does not need to project power, because as long as it is strong, it need not fear conquest. But consider America: arguably the best piece of real estate in the world (at least its Eastern half), with a natural barrier of two vast oceans. If any power would take America, they would have a natural spring board to project power on to the rest of the world, not to mention the vast resources that would capture. For such a country, power projection is essential, something its leaders realized early on through the Monroe Doctrine.

The purpose of power
This brings us to another question - what is the purpose of power projection? Is it for realpolitik, to amass more resources for the people of the country, as was the logic behind colonialism? If that were the case, it would have little justification, because it would ultimately be self-defeating: today's conqueror would become tomorrow's conquered, sparking off a cycle of retribution. For, if there is any truth in the world, it is that change is constant, and no power is eternal.

But what if power is channeled to precisely that cause - self-preservation, or more specifically, preservation of strength? Certainly, that would be moral, for self-preservation is the most natural instinct of all sentient beings, and what has arguably been the main cause of progress. But consider the important corollary - power projection for self-preservation (or the preservation of strength) assumes that a country is strong in the first place. If not, eventually, the focus on external power projection would be defeated by internal fissures.

Thus, for a strong nation to become a great power to protect its strength is morally justified and necessary to ensure progress. On this anniversary of both Mahatma Gandhi and Lab Bahadur Shastri, let us not forget this important lesson.